About the Author
Michael Rubens is a producer and correspondent for Full Frontal with Samantha Bee. In addition to The Bad Decisions Playlist he has published two novels: The Sheriff of Yrnameer (Pantheon), and Sons of the 613 (Clarion). His fourth novel is slated for publication in June of 2017. His work has also appeared in The New Yorker’s Daily Shouts, HuffPost Comedy and Salon. He was previously a producer for Last Week Tonight with John Oliver and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and was for a very brief period the world’s least effective bouncer. Visit him online at www.michaelrubens.com and on Twitter @michaelsrubens.
Read an Excerpt
It was Emily Edelman’s twelfth birthday.
It was a fateful day.
Fateful because she was about to find something very rare and very powerful.
And that very rare and powerful something would launch Emily on a great adventure—“great” in this case meaning “absurdly dangerous”—that would profoundly change her life.
Most likely by . . . well . . . ending it. Horribly.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
At this point, Emily didn’t know about any of that.
What she did know was that it was a perfect day: The sky was perfectly blue, the sun perfectly warm, the clouds perfectly fluffy; the sand was perfectly soft, the ocean waves perfectly wave-y.
And she was in a perfectly awful, perfectly black mood.
Why? Where to start . . .
You could start with her big sister, Hilary, who was driving her insane. Or her obnoxious little brother, Dougie, who was driving her insaner, which Emily knew wasn’t a real word but felt accurate.
Or you could start with the fact that she’d been at her new school for only a week, and already everyone despised her. Especially some girl named Kristy Meyer, who was beautiful and popular and for some reason went out of her way to be mean to Emily.
“I’m pretty sure you’re imagining it,” said Mrs. Edelman, Emily’s mother.
Emily was pretty sure she wasn’t.
When her father had told her he’d been transferred and they were moving across the country, Emily said she didn’t want to move because she’d never see her friends again, and she liked where they lived, and it would be awful. But her father said, “Aw, c’mon! We’ll be living near the ocean! It will be fun! It will be an adventure!”
“I hate adventures,” Emily replied.
He said, “I’m pretty sure you don’t really mean that.”
Emily was pretty sure she did.
That was another thing that was driving her crazy: the way her parents were always so sure that Emily didn’t know anything, even the things that were going on inside her own head. Like she was still a baby. When Emily said she hated adventures, she knew what she was talking about.
Adventure, she had learned, was an adult code word that actually meant “disruption and discomfort and change,” none of which Emily was partial to. Last year in school the students had had to create personal profiles. Under hobbies Emily put hibernating and collecting rocks. Hibernating because Emily’s idea of an ideal evening was to wrap herself up in a cozy blanket and read a book (preferably one without too much adventure). Collecting rocks because she had a vague affection for geology: it was for the most part stable and slow-moving and trustworthy and comforting.
What else was bothering her? How about their new house, which turned out to be a very old house that made weird noises and smelled bad. “Doesn’t it have great character?” her mom kept repeating. “Doesn’t it?” Then got upset when Emily finally blurted, “Sure does! Old and smelly!”
Plus Emily got the worst bedroom, plus the box with her agate collection had gone missing in the move, plus her hamster had dropped dead right before they left, probably of a broken heart, and plus she didn’t even want to come to the beach today to celebrate her birthday. But what did her parents say? “Sure you do!”
Plus plus plus: The one gift she had asked for—the one single thing—she didn’t get. And why?
Because of her older sister, Hilary.
That was Hilary right now, sitting across from Emily on the picnic blanket, moaning piteously.
“Hilary,” said their mother sharply, “give me that phone!”
Mrs. Edelman put down her own phone so she could snatch the phone away from Hilary, who was futilely attempting to text, groaning in agony with each letter.
This was why Emily didn’t get the only thing she’d asked for.
A minor scuffle broke out as Mrs. Edelman tried to take the device, Hilary’s bejeweled phone case shedding rhinestones in the process. Six-year-old Dougie, momentarily distracted from scooping sand into Emily’s uneaten sandwich when she wasn’t looking, giggled.
“Give it to me!” said their mother to Hilary. “Where did you get it?!”
“But, Mommmmm,” moaned Hilary, who was fifteen, “I have to text Cassie because she’s breaking up with Kyle, and Jennie said she’s talking with Brad, and Kerry is—”
“I don’t care!” snapped their mother. “I thought I had locked this in my desk drawer! Edward,” she said to their father, “did you see what she’s been doing?”
Mr. Edelman looked up from his phone. “Hilary,” he said, “you know the doctor said you have to take a break!”
He had indeed. The doctor’s stern, doom-laden instructions—and Hilary’s groans of pain—stemmed from Hilary’s current condition, which stemmed from Hilary’s terrible addiction to the mobile phone she had received for her birthday. Despite her fervent promises to the contrary, she had devoted so much time online and texting her friends—most of her waking hours, really—that she had suddenly developed a whole collection of crippling physical ailments. Not only did she now require glasses to focus beyond a distance of two feet, but she had to undertake a punishing course of physical therapy just to be able to hold her head in a normal upright position. But the worst were her thumbs, which were now encased in soft casts to help their overexerted joints recover.
So when Emily had said to her parents, “The only single thing that I want for my birthday is a phone and you don’t have to get me anything else and all my friends are getting them and I just want to be able to contact them and I promise I’ll have more self-control than Hilary and I’m old enough,” they said, “We’re pretty sure you’re not.”
After her mom had successfully pried the phone from Hilary’s hands, she shook it at Emily and said, “This is why you’re not getting a phone. You are way too young!” As if Hilary’s behavior was all Emily’s fault.
So, sitting there on the beach on a perfect day on her twelfth birthday, Emily was feeling alone, lonely, friendless, dislocated, discomfited, deprived, and unfairly treated like a child. She didn’t know that very soon she’d look back fondly on these problems and think, Ah, if only I could go back to that time . . .
But for now, it was all awful. Gazing out toward the waves, she reached distractedly for her sandwich and took a bite.
So there was another patch of excitement and shouting, from which Dougie somehow emerged without any real punishment. LIKE ALWAYS.
When that was over and Emily had managed to rinse most of the sand out of her mouth with lemonade, her father said, “Cheer up, sweetie—wait till you see the cake I got you!”
Beaming with pride, he opened the box and presented it to her.
Emily saw what was written on it, clapped both hands to her forehead, and said, “Glrrrbb.”
“‘Happy eleventh birthday,’” she muttered darkly. “‘Happy eleventh birthday!’”
Emily angrily upended another bucket of sand to add to the castle she was creating, far down the beach from where her family was.
That’s what the cake had said, in big, happy letters:
Happy Eleventh Birthday, Emily!
They didn’t even know she was twelve!
When her father had opened the box, Emily had said “Glrrrbb,” because that sound, emerging through gritted teeth, is the sound you create when you strangle a scream.
HAPPY ELEVENTH BIRTHDAY, EMILY!
Her family, of course, thought the whole thing was hysterical. Her parents laughed. Dougie brayed like a donkey. Even Hilary, whose interactions with the family mostly consisted of her rolling her eyes, joined in the laughter.
“It’s not funny!” said Emily.
“Actually,” said Hilary, “it’s really funny.”
“Sweetie,” said her father, “I’m sorry. The bakery must have screwed it up.”
“Uh-huh,” said Emily. “How do you explain that candle?”
Her father took a better look at what he was placing on the cake—one of those candles in the shape of a number. Which, in this case, was 11.
Her father stared at the candle, as if trying to comprehend exactly what he was looking at. Then he said: “HA HA HA HA HAAAA!”
. . . and the rest of the family joined in again.
“Stop laughing!” said Emily.
“Honey, come on,” said her mother. “We all know that you’re . . . uh . . .”
“Of course! Let’s all just sing ‘Happy Birthday’ and enjoy the cake. Come on, everyone. ‘Haaaappy biiiirthday to—’” which is when the seagull pooped on the cake and everyone burst into hysterical laughter again and Emily bellowed, “That’s IT! I’ve HAD IT!” and stormed off down the beach.
It shouldn’t surprise her that they didn’t know how old she was, she thought as she built up the castle. She was lucky they put an eleven on the cake—most of the time they treated her as though she were the same age as Dougie.
Dougie. Ugh-y Dougie. Not for the first time she flashed through a quick fantasy of him being conveniently abducted by aliens. Conveniently and permanently.
“He’s just being rambunctious,” her parents always said.
Rambunctious. That made it sound cute. Obnoxious was the correct word, a word that would describe the sort of kid who—
“AAARGH, I’M A GIANT MONSTER!!!”
—who would rudely interrupt the narrator midsentence and trample your sandcastle and then run off down the beach giggling before you even had a chance to shout, “DOUGIE!!!”
“That’s IT!” said Emily again, looking at her ruined sandcastle. “I’ve HAD IT!” She was aware that she had declared that that was IT and she’d HAD IT and stormed off down the beach once before, but this time it was really true, and so she stormed off even farther down the beach.
Toward her destiny. The one mentioned at the beginning of the chapter. The one that will almost certainly lead to her destruction.
Emily was wandering along the edge of the water, picking up and examining the small stones and pebbles strewn on the wet sand: “Hmm. Igneous. Interesting,” or “Quartz. Perfect.” The best ones she placed in a little plastic bucket. As she collected rocks she continued muttering to herself: “Stupid family. Stupid new school. Stupid Kristy Meyer . . .” She came upon a small puddle of seawater left over from the high tide and spotted her reflection in it: frizzy hair like her mother, which Emily hated; a slightly too-big nose like her father, which Emily also hated. She stuck out her tongue at herself—“Stupid me!”—and moved on.
Then she saw it.
It was ahead of her, halfway sunken in the wet sand, appearing and disappearing under a few inches of water each time a wave came in.
She crouched down and picked it up.
It was a stone, the most curiously shaped stone Emily had ever seen: weirdly rectangular and flat, a light grayish-brown, maybe half an inch thick. Its form, although rough and irregular, reminded her of nothing so much as a cell phone.
The thought made her laugh grimly. “I’m getting a phone after all,” she said out loud.
And right then she had the strangest sensation: that the stone vibrated briefly in her hand, as if in friendly recognition. Hello, the stone seemed to say. There you are! And in that same brief moment—no more than the time it took for the next wave to arrive and spread itself over the shoreline and cover her feet—it seemed a voice spoke to Emily, a voice without words, filling her mind with rather unsettling thoughts of distant lands and profound mysteries and perilous exploits. And of power.
Then the wave receded and the moment was over.
Emily stood stock-still, barely breathing, staring at the stone, wondering if she had imagined it. Everything was normal. The seagulls squawked. The waves made their gentle crashing noises.
It had been like a poem, she thought. Or no, like a song. Or the feeling you get when you hear a song. And there was something else. Something . . . a little scary. She could have sworn that she had heard another voice, hidden away beneath the songless song: a cheerful voice, yes, but not at all friendly. A voice that spoke actual words.
What it had said, she thought, was, “I can’t wait to eat you.”
“Whaddya got? Whaddisit! Gimme it! Lemme see!”
Dougie grabbed at the stone, snapping Emily out of her reverie.
“Dougie! Leggo! That’s mine!” She pulled the stone out of his reach, twisting and turning to keep it away from him as he snatched at it, the odd experience already forgotten.
“Kids!” Her father, calling to them from down the beach, waving for them to come back. “Time to go!”
“C’mon,” said Dougie. “Lemme just see it!”
“Dougie, no!” she said. She wasn’t sure why she cared that much, but he was not getting this stone. “Here,” she said, shoving the bucket full of rocks at him. “You can have these.” Emily started tromping back toward her parents.
The stone felt warm in her hand.
That night in her new bedroom that she didn’t like in the new old house that she also didn’t like, Emily sat on her bed and examined the stone curiously, tracing its surface with her fingertips. She wasn’t sure what sort of stone it was—maybe metamorphic, she thought, squeezed into its unusual shape by unimaginable heat and pressure deep in the earth, eons and eons ago. This time she didn’t hear or feel anything: no unsung song, no voices either friendly or threatening.
“You’re just a rock,” she said out loud.
“Emily, bedtime,” said her mom from the hallway. “Lights out.”
She placed the flat stone on her windowsill, climbed back into bed, and turned off the lamp on her nightstand. She was soon asleep.
The stone lay on her windowsill in a patch of moonlight.